So, I think we can all agree, policy is quite important. We join political parties to change the world. And deciding how it should change can be the most exciting bit. Discussing, thinking, working out how to make things better with others who share the same objectives but may have a different way to get there.
The way we decide policy is crucial to the SNP’s cohesion and strength as a political party. The essence of a democratic process is that it offers a trade-off. In return for being able to argue and maybe win your point of view we each agree to abide by whatever position is eventually agreed by the whole group. People who support a minority position will get behind the majority because there’s been a fair debate on the options. This allows parties, and other organisations, to agree a common way forward and their supporters to rally behind it.
But it’s vital that we create mechanisms where everyone feels they’ve had a fair crack of the whip in getting their point of view across. The more people we involve in making a decision the better that decision will be – and the more people there will be ready to campaign for it.
So, let’s take a look at how we make policy at the moment. Strangely, for a party our size, most policy discussion is started by external organisations. Scotland has a vibrant political culture with no end of campaigning groups trying to achieve policy change. Many of these organisations involve SNP members who then try to get their party branch to adopt a particular policy.
If a policy is agreed at branch level it may eventually be sent on for debate at national conference. And this I’m afraid is where most resolutions go to die. We have around 200 branches and they submit a similar number of resolutions to annual conference or spring conference each year. The Standing Orders and Agenda Committee (SOAC) will then decide which ones will make it onto the agenda. It’s a difficult job but someone has to do it. With the best will in the world there is only time to discuss a handful of the motions submitted and most will not see the light of day.
And, of course, as everyone is aware our conference takes place under the glare of a (mainly) hostile media keen to present differences of view as “splits” or “challenges to the leadership”, so it’s hardly the most conducive environment for resolving policy differences.
For me, policy making should be a continuous process and our procedures need developed to allow a lot more members to be involved. Our annual delegate conference should remain the sovereign decision making body within the SNP but it could be augmented by other structures which ensure participation and preparation.
Here’s one idea to think about. A new National Policy Commission made up of delegates from branches could oversee and co-ordinate how we make policy. It could elect a national policy committee and be supported by party staff. It could also set up, if required, working groups in specific areas. It could then co-ordinate policy reviews and present them – sometimes with clearly set out options – to conference for final debate and decision. This could replace the existing National Assembly which has not met for years and which – since it was an ad hoc gathering open to all party members – couldn’t work with our vastly increased membership.
The National Policy Commission could launch policy reviews in particular areas with a timetable for discussion ranging from six to eighteen months – depending on how complex the matter is. It could encourage local branches to debate policy options producing easy to read briefings and a directory of knowledgeable speakers.
Last week I talked about strengthening our regional structure and creating full time organisers working out of local offices. Our regional structure could work well to allow members to discuss policy too. Regional policy forums could collate the views of branch activists and feed into the discussions at the national body.
And whilst I think electronic communication is limited in terms of motivating people who are not already involved it could come into its own when linking up party members who want to debate a particular topic. We could look at developing an online policy forum on the members’ section of our website which allows people to join a members only debate online. SNP Debate could do for policy what we hope SNP College will do for campaigning.
We have a lot to discuss. What’s the best currency option for an independent Scotland post Brexit? What size of a public sector do we want and how will we fund it? How do we move to a non-carbon based energy policy? And we have lots of people in our party who know stuff and want to discuss these things. Creating new structures for our members to make policy together will make our party stronger and our policies better. And that’s all part of getting us match fit to lead and win the next indyref.
This column was written for The National - 27th August 2016